DeLeo agrees to cost review

Will examine bills from DiMasi case; No independent auditor OK’d

Speaker Robert DeLeo changed course in a matter of days. Speaker Robert DeLeo changed course in a matter of days.
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 16, 2009

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Backing down under pressure from dissident Democrats, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo agreed yesterday to hire a private lawyer to review more than $350,000 in taxpayer-funded legal bills stemming from the federal investigation of his predecessor, Salvatore F. DiMasi.

The about-face came after DeLeo had watched business in his chamber come to a halt for two days. But while he said he would appoint the private lawyer to investigate the legal contract and bills submitted by Gargiulo/Rudnick, he stopped short of approving an independently appointed auditor, as demanded by lawmakers.

DiMasi hired the Boston firm to represent the House in January, just before his resignation amid scrutiny of his role in a state computer contract. He was indicted on corruption charges in June.

In a statement released last night, the speaker’s office said that the lawyer would examine the contract “with an eye to its scope, scale, performance, and cost.’’

“If this review uncovers any inappropriate activity - and there is no indication at this time that it will - [Speaker DeLeo] will seek the strongest possible action under the law,’’ the statement said. “House members and Massachusetts taxpayers deserve nothing less. Speaker DeLeo believes that at times like these, Massachusetts taxpayers have the right to know that their tax dollars are being well spent.’’

The statement did not indicate whether the findings would be made public.

It was not clear last night if DeLeo had placated the rebellious lawmakers who had been blocking the House from taking up a number of issues, including a $41 million spending bill that is critical to the funding of the state’s homeless shelters. The group of four who had pressed for the audit seemed caught off guard by the speaker’s move.

“It doesn’t do it for me,’’ said Representative Thomas M. Stanley, Democrat of Waltham, who used a procedural measure to shut down the House session yesterday. “It should be performed by an outside auditor independently of the speaker.’’

He said he would probably continue to block House action until the speaker agrees to an independently appointed reviewer. The group’s proposal called for the governor to make the appointment.

But one of his colleagues, Representative Matthew Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat, had a more positive reaction and said he would consult with his colleagues before making any decision on whether to continue holding up state business.

“I feel pretty good about it,’’ Patrick said. “I think it is a step in the right direction. I look forward to hearing the details.’’

DeLeo’s about-face came at the end of a second day of inaction in the House, orchestrated by the four lawmakers. Under House rules, a single lawmaker can block a vote on a bill during informal sessions, which are used to handle noncontroversial issues.

DeLeo’s change of mind came abruptly; until late yesterday, he was still refusing to review the books, instead saying he would send the lawmakers’ request to the House Rules Committee, which often serves as a graveyard for such legislative directives. He had argued that details of the law firm’s work must remain confidential until the completion of the federal investigation into charges that DiMasi took money from a software firm, Cognos, in exchange for helping it win a state contract.

The lawmakers, who include former assistant majority leader Lida E. Harkins, Democrat of Needham, has sharply criticized the speaker for not opening the books for a review of the legal charges, saying the public has a right to know how the funds were spent. Harkins said the amount of hours spent on the case is “way out of whack’’ and that the Senate only paid a fraction of that amount when two of its members were investigated last year.

DeLeo allies tried yesterday to paint the lawmakers as disgruntled House members who had sided with former majority leader John H. Rogers in the battle to replace DiMasi last January.

“They’re upset Speaker DeLeo is speaker of the House,’’ said Representative Vincent A. Pedone, a Worcester Democrat and chairman of one of DeLeo’s key committees. He confronted Harkins and her group outside the House chamber as they met with reporters to state their case.

“Until the investigation is completed, the bills have to remain private,’’ Pedone said. DeLeo had produced a letter he received from the US attorney’s office requesting that the House not publicize the existence of the subpoenas. According to his aides, this directive also required keeping the legal bills private.

But Harkins and several other lawmakers said the public has a right to know how the legal costs had grown to such a level over a nine-month period, continuing to accrue long after DiMasi left office.